Two worlds are divided by the ribbon of water that separates Bali and Lombok. A pair of perfect volcanic cones, their peaks shrouded in cloud, stand like giant sentinels guarding the narrow Lombok Strait between the two islands. To the west lie the Asian lands of elephants, tigers and orangutans, to the east the Australasian lands of marsupials, cockatoos and komodo dragons. On the short boat ride across you pass over the Wallace Line that demarcates these two ecosystems. When English naturalist Alfred Wallace made this journey in the nineteenth century he was struck by the complete change in flora and fauna, sparking revolutionary work on evolution. For all the natural splendour of Lombok, it is ayam taliwang that captivated me most. It is not only its name that is irresistible, this is truly everything you could hope for in grilled chicken. The skin is burnished and glazed, contrasting with succulent meat inside. There is a fiery smack of charred chilli and deeply smoky savouriness from the garlic. Putu, a chef in Lombok for forty years, shared his mother’s recipe with me, which I have adapted to cook in the oven at home.
Lay the chicken on a large board, breast side down. Use kitchen scissors to remove the backbone by cutting down either side of it. Flip the bird and press firmly on the breast to flatten. Season and rub with a little oil. Set aside to come to room temperature whilst you make the sauce.
Heat half the oil in a frying pan and add the garlic, chillies, kencur, candlenuts and shrimp paste. The garlic cloves go in whole, the dried and bird’s eye chillies have their seeds in. Cook until the garlic is slightly browned and everything is aromatic. Leaving the oil behind in the pan, transfer to a blender and add a pinch of salt and
Return to the pan with the residual oil and add the lime and salam leaves. Cook on a medium heat, stirring, to thicken. Once it has lost its rawness, turn down the heat, add the oyster and soy sauces and coconut milk. Simmer for a few minutes, then turn off the heat. Scrape three quarters into a bowl, stir in the juice; season. To the pan, add the rest of the oil to make a marinade.
Check after 35 minutes. When cooked through the juices will be clear and if you have a meat thermometer it should reach 74°C (165°F). Leave the chicken to rest for 15 minutes before serving with the sauce and an extra spritz of lime.
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